Picking, Riding, And Investing In The Next Great Technology Wave

The last big wave which helped generate huge returns for technology investors was largely driven by phones. Building apps and services on top of phone sensors, connected to the network, gave us new media apps like Instagram and Snapchat, new communication tools like Whatsapp and Messenger, and new ways to travel like Airbnb and Uber (thank you GPS sensor and Google Maps API!). The mobile wave was/is big enough to create opportunities for others, as well, though these are the biggest outcomes.

In early-stage investing today, a bunch of friends and peers who invest at seed always wonder — what’s next?

Lately, when I’ve been asked this question, here’s the analogy I use to the answer the question:

Imagine we are all surfers in a surf competition. During the day, we each are allowed to pick a set number of waves to ride and are scored on them. There are lots of surfers doggy-paddling in the open ocean, and the goal is to identify, pick, and line up to catch the biggest wave of the day. The problem, of course, is that in the moment, from your vantage point with your head bobbing on the surface of the water, it’s hard to identify and commit to the wave at the right time. If you move to soon, you may pick the wrong wave; ff you wait too long for the wave to take shape, you may not have enough time to catch it properly.

The goal, of course, is to pick the right wave and time it perfectly. Picking the right wave will be scored well and rewarded by the judges, will give the surfer an unforgettable ride, and will pack enough kinetic, nautical energy that will propel the surfer to reach new speeds. That is the goal.

In reality, right now in the early stage, everyone’s wading in the open ocean, surveying the horizon for promising waves to form. There are waves we anticipate in tech but we don’t know when those waves will reach a point where we can ride them — waves around Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning; or vertical marketplaces; or SaaS network; or Virtual and/or Augmented Reality; or bots and agents; or autonomous robotics; or…name any other big category. We all just don’t know what that wave will be, where it will come from, and what it will look like.

In the face of this uncertainty, some elect to follow their peers who are known to have a good nose for spotting big waves. Some have studied up on how to pick out a big wave looking at data or other physical properties. Some are happy to pick out a portfolio of a few waves and hedge their bets (that’s what I’m trying to do). Every strategy comes with its benefits and risks. Entrepreneurs, of course, see these waves before most investors do, but both founder and investor can pick the wrong wave or move too late when the big wave is forming. It will be just a matter of time before this next wave emerges — because no one knows when it’s coming — and it will be exciting to see what it looks like and where it comes from.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2018 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus